A Passion for Public Health Policy Brings Alumna to GW

Lydia Orth headshotLydia Orth, MPH ’15, relocated more than 1,600 miles for the sole purpose of attending the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. Although she was exuding excitement before moving to D.C., it was a tough transition. Having grown up in Denver, Colorado, she wasn’t use to the fast paced rhythm of the city. She also wasn’t entirely sure why D.C. locals kept asking her, “What do you do?”. Nevertheless, she quickly found her footing by making friends with likeminded first year public health students.

Before moving to the nation’s capital, Lydia lived downtown in the mile-high city, working at National Jewish Health Hospital. While working there, she began developing a passion for public health—specifically health policy. She shared, “I vividly remember when I found out the Affordable Care Act passed. I had just gotten into the office and to my desk and opened up the New York Times.” She continued, laughing a bit, “I literally stood up from my desk and yelled, oh my God it passed! It passed!” She went on to describe the overwhelming amount of joy she felt when it was passed and remembered thinking, “This is really going to help uninsured and underinsured patients sitting in hospital waiting rooms across the country.”

Lydia attributes GW’s talented faculty for helping her decide where to pursue her Master of Public Health degree. Before her acceptance she perused the school’s website, read faculty profiles and their publications, and set-up time for informational phone interviews with faculty members. Lydia said, “I made the best decision to attend GW.” She continued, “Not only is the School of Public Health located in the heart of D.C., which gives students unfettered access to some of the most respected minds in their field, but the faculty also have real-world experience.“ With a big smile, Lydia reflected on her favorite class, “Health Care on the Hill,” with Professor Rodney Whitlock, while remarking on his trademark suspenders. The course was one of her favorites because it focused on health care legislation and how it moves through the House and Senate. “It wasn’t your typical lecture hall-style class where students sit and look at PowerPoint slides,” she explained. “Mr. Whitlock would invite majority and minority staff from various House and Senate offices to speak on panels about living and breathing health policy, and the interplay with politics as legislation moves through Congress.”

While attending GW, Lydia worked as a research assistant at AcademyHealth, where she focused on implementation sciences and how to promote the integration of research findings into healthcare policy and practice. Then she moved to Atlas Research to work as an analyst. Her primary client was the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, where she provided subject matter expertise on issues around Affordable Care Act implementation. By working fulltime and attending night classes throughout the MPH program, she was able to take what she learned in the classroom and directly apply it to her job. When asked the question, “What do you wish you would have known your first day of graduate school?” Lydia immediately answered, “Do not take both biostatistics 6002 and epidemiology 6003 in your first semester!” She followed up with, “No, but seriously, I wish I would have kept all my syllabi and the PDFs of every article I read for classes. I’m constantly trying to find an article from a class that I want to reference in my current work.”

Lydia’s last semester, she took the health policy culminating experience course. Dr. Paula Lantz, the professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management, pulled her aside after class one night and asked if she considered applying for the Winston Fellowship. Lydia wasn’t sure how to respond. She hadn’t thought about applying for fellowship programs. She was a nontraditional student, working full-time so it was going to take her longer to finish her MPH compared to other students. She had been hyper-focused on doing course work and studying nights and weekends, she doubted she was the kind of applicant the fellowship board would select. “Faculty at GW are passionate about their students. Dr. Lantz saw potential in me that I couldn’t see because I was so concentrated on classes while working fulltime. Her encouragement and mentorship gave me the confidence to apply.”

Lydia ended up being selected for the prestigious David A. Winston Health Policy Fellowship. During the year-long program she had the opportunity to expand her knowledge of health policy-making though first-hand exposure to both public and private sector decision makers in D.C. Part of the fellowship was a nine-month placement, and during that time she served as a fellow for the House Committee on Ways & Means Health subcommittee. There she worked on Medicare and Affordable Care Act policy issues, while learning the real legislative creating process.

Currently, Lydia is a Presidential Management Fellow with Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The Presidential Management Fellowship is a prominent two-year training and development program that provides leadership training for future government agency leaders. She is in the second year of the program, and works in the Medicare-Medicaid Coordination Office, which serves beneficiaries who are dually eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. The goal is to make sure enrollees have full access to seamless, high quality health care in a cost-effective way.

Her experience attending GW sparked a passion for bringing people into the health policy field. She continues to be involved by volunteering for alumni panel discussions and being a teaching assistant for graduate-level courses in the School of Public Health. Now when Lydia is asked “What do you do?” she proudly says, “I’m a public servant working to make sure Americans have access to health care.”

Originally posted on the Milken Institute School of Public Health website.

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